Samuel Beckett at 100: Three Plays
Cascando | Words and Music | But the Clouds
It is the month of May...for me.
New versions of three little-known plays by Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), originally written and produced for BBC radio and television, celebrated what would have been Beckett’s 100th birthday (April 13, 2006).
The three plays featured violinist Gil Morgenstern along with actor Bill Camp, and were directed by veteran director and Harvard theater professor Robert Scanlan, who worked closely with Beckett on several productions during the last nine years of the playwright’s life.
These new versions of the plays presented music co-commissioned by Nine Circles Chamber Theatre and the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center, composed by Martin Pearlman, founder and musical director of Boston Baroque.
Beckett at 100 marked the fourth collaboration between the 92nd Street Y and the creative team of Nine Circles Chamber Theatre. Scanlan directed the landmark 1998 adaptation of Robert Pinsky’s translation of Dante’s Inferno at the 92nd Street Y that inspired the founding of Nine Circles Chamber Theatre also featuring Camp and Morgenstern.
World premiere: April 3, 2006 92nd Street Y, New York, NY
||Violin and Musical Director
||Bob, Music (violin)
About the Plays
For Scanlan, the three plays “represent three different ways of coping with inexpressible anguish through the making of art. In each play,” he says, “an artist has at his disposal a musical and word-producing capacity, and some profound material he is trying to express. The artist’s level of success in expressing his anguish through art evolves gradually from the first play to the last, as does Beckett’s own development as an artist. On the occasion of his 100th birthday,” Scanlan says, “what could be better than an evening-long examination of the evolution of his art?”
The first two plays – Words and Music and Cascando – were commissioned by the BBC as radio plays, and both plays address Beckett’s fascination with the interplay of language and music. Each of the scripts was written for an accompanying musical score that actually plays a dramatic role in the play, but Beckett never gave any indication of how the music should sound. In re-imagining these two densely written plays, Scanlan worked closely with composer Martin Pearlman to use the music to help illuminate the underlying meaning of the plays. The third play, But the Clouds, which Beckett wrote as a teleplay for BBC Television, includes new incidental music by Martin Pearlman (although this music is not part of Beckett’s original script as it was in the earlier radio plays).
Words and Music, written in 1961, is a darkly sarcastic farce in which the artist (in the play) fails miserably to coordinate music and words, and the two media are ultimately unable to come together in a coherent piece of art. The artist, named Croak, gives up in disgust and literally beats words and music with a club to try to make them perform for him. Cascando was written just two years later, shortly after Words and Music was finally produced and broadcast. Scanlan says, “It’s almost as though Beckett wanted a second take on this material, and you can see his evolution as an artist from one play to the next, as he comes up with a new formal solution to the same problem (making art to deal with a core of grave pain).” But because the plays are written by Beckett, who is known for his cryptic writing, Scanlan is quick to point out that the actual content of the play continues to be “very deeply masked.”
The last play, But the Clouds was written for television in 1976. In it, Beckett captures in visual terms what the first two plays struggled to express solely in sound. The main character is haunted by the memory of a woman whose image won’t leave him alone. Beckett uses the memory of the woman’s face – a visual image – to represent the hope that her face will fade, like clouds drifting across the sky – hence the title.